Josh Rittberg

Arts and Culture Editor

The Fulton Theatre is capping off it’s exciting season of theatre with a spellbinding production of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Now, although this show does have the Disney name on it, the stage adaptation of this classic tale is decidedly darker and more true to the original Victor Hugo novel than the animated film.

This musicaltells the story of a lonely Hunchback named Quasimodo (Nathaniel Hackmann).  Quasimodo lives in the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame, under the eye of the flawed priest, Don Claude Frollo (David Girolmo).  Trapped in the bell tower of the chapel, he longs to see the world outside his quiet perch. When a festival comes to the streets of Notre Dame, Quasimodo breaks free.  He meets the sensitive, yet mysterious, gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Kalyn West).   He instantly feels connected to her, as does the newly returned war veteran, Pheobus De Martin (Travis Taylor). Frollo also finds himself battling feelings of lust towards this gypsy girl. What follows is an epic adventure of truth and courage as Quasimodo fights to find himself and protect Esmeralda from Frollo’s treacherous grasp.

Nathaniel Hackmann delivers an absolutely transformative performance as Quasimodo.  Hackmann in the past has been seen at The Fulton in comedic villain roles such as Gaston inBeauty and the Beastand the demented Dentist, Orin Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors.    Here, the actor is nearly unrecognizable as he turns into the iconic hunchback in full view of the audience.  With only a fake hump, a cape and a slight twist of the body and face, Hackmann suddenly embodies this man.  He gives Quasimodo great heart and humor.  Although Hackmann inhabits a distinct lisp in the hunchback’s book scenes, his voice truly soars when Quasimodo gets to break into song. His sensitive delivery of Quasimodo’s song of longing, “Out There”, is enough to bring even the most jaded audience member to tears.  The juxtaposition between Hackmann’s powerful vocals and outward appearance is simply stunning.  He leads the cast of this epic piece with great humanity.

Kalyn West brings spunk and a sensitivity to the spirited gypsy dancer, Esmeralda.  Esmeralda faces much adversity throughout the story, yet the character always tries to see the good in others. West gives the audience a strong female heroine to root for as she brings this woman to life.  From the moment she makes her exciting entrance in the electrifying number “Rhythm of the Tambourine”, West simply commands the stage with her lively presence, exciting vocals, and lovely dancing.  She also brings a delicate grace to her ballad, “God Help the Outcasts.” In a cast of many men, West never fails to astound as the bold and heroic gypsy with a heart of gold.

David Girolmo is menacingly evil as the deeply flawed and manipulative Dom Claude Frollo.  Frollo cages Quasimodo from the world around him like a prisoner.  Although he was the one who raised the hunchback, his lustful anger over Esmeralda makes the character an extremely complex yet haunting villain.  Frollo ultimately uses his faith to justify many horrible and unjust acts of violence and abuse. Girolmo never downplays this truth within his character.  His booming rendition of the hair-raising anthem “Hellfire” has a raw power.  He gives a truly chilling performance.  As in the case of the best villains, Girolmo’s Frollo views himself as the hero. This makes his dastardly acts against the various characters especially terrifying.

Travis Taylor brings a confident swagger and handsome air to the production as Pheobus De Martin. When he first appears, Pheobus appears to be a newly returned war veteran only looking for fun.  Once he meets Esmeralda, he suddenly develops a sense of heroism and becomes quite romantic. Although he loves Esmeralda, Pheobus is ultimately conflicted as he works for Frollo.  Taylor conveys Phoebus’s complicated arc well. He has excellent chemistry with West’s Esmeralda.  This is particularly the case in their romantic duet, “Someday”.   Although Pheobus is the more conventional romantic lead in the love triangle, Taylor gives the character much respect and likability.

Donovan Hoffer is a delight as the leader of the gypsies, Clopin Trouillefou. Hoffer as the gypsy leader brings the perfect combination of lightness and intrigue to his role.  He leads the rousing opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame”, with showmanship and flair. The character also gets much depth through Hoffer’s portrayal.  Hoffer is a joy every time he is on stage as he brings much lightness and levity to this very dark and heavy piece of theater.

The massive ensemble that surrounds the outstanding leading players adds an incredible sense of atmosphere to this production. They sing Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s score with absolute majesty and are absolutely lovely. From the choir at the top of the stage, to those who serve as the storytellers of Quasimodo’s tale, every member truly gives it their all. Their voices as a company truly astound in their sheer power. The ensemble is made up of some much loved veterans of the Fulton stage along with many newcomers.

Marc Robin’s direction for this production is a brilliant combination of spectacle and intimacy.  The remarkable cast and the grandeur of the technical elements give the production a true sense of enchantment.  Yet, Robin very smartly brings much of the action forward towards the audience. This choice wisely adds a much needed sense of intimacy throughout this massive piece. He also manages to get outstandingly human performances by the entire cast. Although not a dance show by any means, Robin’s choreography for the lively “Topsy Turvy” production number is appropriately light and festive. His work for this piece is truly something to commend as he works wonders with this very strong material.

The various creative elements which include Adam Koch’s towering three level set, Paul Black’s bold lighting and Ryan J. Moller’s detailed costumes, all add great majesty to this spellbinding production. Koch’s set, with its inspired use of ropes and levels, impresses in its massive size and versatility. Although the chapel set piece is always present, Moller makes creative use of benches and wooden staircases. These simpler pieces manage to represent everything from the chapel balcony to a town square. The whole production is a testament to the power of storytelling and Koch’s set pays great respect to that ancient idea.

Paul Black’s lights support Koch’s gorgeous sets with a style that is dramatic yet always appropriate for the various moments and locales. Moller’s costumes are also very strong.  A special mention must also be given to Anthony Lascoskie Jr.’s outstanding use of wigs and makeup as Nathaniel Hackmann truly does transform into Quasimodo.  Lascoskie smartly does not bury Hackmann in prosthetics.  Instead he applies just enough to serve Hackmann’s performance as he already is very strong and convincing as the Hunchback.

Although, the musical’s book, by Peter Parnell, becomes a bit rushed in the second half, the Fulton Theatre’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is still truly something to behold.  It boasts powerfully moving performances specifically by Hackmann, West and Girolmo that audiences will be praising for years to come. The physical production may be the best yet for The Fulton.  The whole season has been building up to this grand finale, and the entire team has truly created incredible theatre that may be very hard to top.  This is a show that audiences should run to see, as this is musical theatre at its grandest and most lavish.